Libertarian feminist writer and editor Joan Kennedy Taylor discovered Charles Murray, edited “Libertarian Review” magazine, and befriended a number of gay libertarians.
Joan Kennedy Taylor first became involved in the libertarian movement in the early 1960s, when she was a student at the Nathaniel Branden Institute in New York City. As a student of Objectivism, she espoused the political views of Ayn Rand: the nonaggression principle, natural rights, a free market, and a state so minimal that it had no power to tax and had to raise its revenues by charging fees for its services or, perhaps, running a national lottery. Taylor was in her early 30s when she adopted these political views; before that time, she seems to have been pretty much apolitical. She did show distinct signs of a strong interest in individualism when she was in her teens and twenties (and I’ll describe that in more detail below). But before the late 1950s, she seems never to have evidenced any interest in specifically political issues or principles.
Joan Kennedy Taylor was born 84 years ago last month, on December 21, 1926, in Manhattan. Her father was the prominent composer and musical journalist Deems Taylor. Her mother, Mary Kennedy, though never as well known as her father, was also in the public eye: she starred in plays on Broadway, wrote plays of her own, and, in later years, wrote poetry and children’s books as well.
Taylor and Kennedy divorced in 1933, when their daughter Joan was six years old; over the next nine years, Joan attended eight different schools in three different countries. As she explained to an interviewer 60 years later, her mother “traveled a lot. She believed in geographical solutions to problems. She was always looking for the perfect place.”
Mary Kennedy and her daughter returned to the United States at the end of the 1930s, having spent most of the decade abroad. But Mary had not yet found the perfect place, so she set out on her global travels again before long, this time leaving her daughter behind, first at St. Timothy’s, an Episcopal boarding school for girls in rural Maryland not far from Baltimore, then at Barnard Collegein Manhattan. Both these schools were exclusive and expensive.
Barnard is, of course, one of the Seven Sisters, the group of colleges established in the 19th century to provide the equivalent of an Ivy League education for women of talent who were denied admission to Ivy League schools because of their gender — Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley. Each of the original Seven Sisters was closely associated with one of the Ivy League colleges: Radcliffe with Harvard, for example, and Barnard with Columbia.
Mary was able to afford such high-priced schools for her daughter because her divorce settlement guaranteed her half of her ex-husband’s gross income, taxes prepaid, as well as a free house in Connecticut. And because Joan’s father prospered during the Depression and the war years as a network radio personality — he was, according to his biographer, “among the most listened to and recognizable voices of his time” — his ex-wife and his daughter prospered, too. Joan, for her part, not only availed herself of the elite education offered to her, as it were, on a silver platter, she also formed a habit of omnivorous reading which lasted for the rest of her life.
Sometime in the 1940s, she read and was greatly impressed by a passionately individualist novel called The Fountainhead, by an as yet unknown Russian immigrant who called herself Ayn Rand. Also during the ’40s, while a student at Barnard, she met and fell in love with a psychology major over at Columbia named Donald Cook. Cook introduced Joan to his close friend Allen Ginsberg, and through Ginsberg she met his friends Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac — the nucleus of what later came to be called the “beat generation.”
She found herself strongly drawn to the jazz that was favored by Donald’s beat friends, hearing in this predominantly African-American genre what the beat writer John Clellon Holmes later called “the music of inner freedom, of improvisation, of the creative individual rather than the interpretive group.”
She also found herself drawn to the intensely individualistic fiction written by the beat writers, with its focus on the individual sensibility, the individual point of view. She became interested during these same years in self-actualization, self-realization, the kinds of things that would come to be known a couple of decades later as elements in the “human-potential movement.”
In the ’40s and ’50s, it seemed to Joan (and to a lot of other people) that the thinkers who had the most to offer to individuals seeking to realize or actualize their previously untapped potential were the Russian G.I. Gurdjieff and his chief disciple, P.D. Ouspensky.
A few years later, when very similar ideas were set forth by American psychologists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow under the name of “Humanistic Psychology,” they would reach a much wider audience than Gurdjieff or Ouspensky had ever managed to attract. But Joan Kennedy Taylor was a very early convert to individualism in psychology, and she had to make do with what was available at the time of her conversion.
The Fountainhead, jazz, beat writing, the first vague stirrings of the human-potential movement — as I said earlier, all this bespeaks a general inclination in the direction of individualism, but it doesn’t really have any specifically political implications. It is, after all, possible to be an individualist without espousing any political views. The beats were mostly apolitical, as were Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and their students. And so was Joan.
But all this changed in 1957, when she was 30 years old. She had been acting — on stage, on radio, on television — since graduating from high school a dozen years before. Like most actors of any era, she had also held various day jobs. She had sold jewelry; she had done this, that, and the other. At the moment she was working as a publicity assistant at the book publishing company of Alfred A. Knopf. That summer, through an associate who worked in publicity over at Random House, she got hold of an advance copy of Ayn Rand’s new novel, which bore the somewhat mysterious title Atlas Shrugged.
“I read it over Labor Day Weekend 1957,” Joan told interviewer Duncan Scott in 2004, “and I was blown away, absolutely. I had read The Fountainhead before, but I was really impressed by this — so much so that I wrote her a fan letter.”
As it happened, Joan’s was only the second letter Rand had received from a reader about Atlas Shrugged. And, as Joan told Duncan Scott, Rand
was impressed with my letter, and she spoke to her publicity person at Random House, asking if she knew me — and she did — and so the next thing I knew I got a call from Jean Ennis, the publicity person at Random House, saying, “Ayn Rand got your letter, she liked it, and she wants to have lunch with you.”
They had lunch. They talked for hours. Then, as Joan told the tale, Rand “said that she wanted me to meet her ‘children,’ Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, and we set up a date when I would come to her house and meet them.”
Barbara Branden in this period was putting in 40 hours a week as an editorial coordinator at St. Martin’s Press and teaching philosophy at Long Island University in her spare time. Nathaniel Branden, Joan recalled, “was working as a psychologist … and he was planning — or hoping — to give a lecture course on Ayn Rand’s philosophy. … I remember … him asking me if I would be interested in taking it, and I said yes.”
The first lecture in Nathaniel’s completed course, “Basic Principles of Objectivism,” was first delivered, according to Barbara Branden “in January of 1958, a few months after the publication of Atlas Shrugged … in a small hotel room.” Joan was there, along with around two dozen others who had read Atlas Shrugged and seen the small ads in New York newspapers promoting a series of lectures on Rand’s ideas.
And as the Objectivist movement grew over the next ten years — and it grew by leaps and bounds — Joan was there. She was a personal friend of Ayn Rand and a frequent guest in her home. Her social life increasingly centered around the Nathaniel Branden Institute and the Objectivist movement. When she married her second husband, David Dawson, over Thanksgiving weekend of 1958, Ayn Rand and her husband Frank O’Connor were among the dozen guests in attendance.
my husband, David Dawson, and I were two of twenty-five students of Objectivism who went down to Republican Headquarters and signed up and registered as Republicans and petitioned to form a Young Republican Club. We did. We formed the Metropolitan Young Republican Club, which was an Objectivist front for Goldwater. We were all students of Objectivism.
Within a few months, the Metropolitan Young Republican Club established a newsletter — it was called Persuasion — and Joan Kennedy Taylor was named editor. Within a few more months, the campaign was over, and there was no further need for a newsletter whose chief reason for existing seemed to be promotion of Senator Goldwater’s effort to get elected president. But Joan had rather enjoyed her brief stint as editor of a political periodical and rather wanted to continue it. And at that point, Ayn Rand came riding to the rescue.
Rand had already let Joan know that she admired her work on Persuasion. As Joan described their conversation to Duncan Scott many years later, “She told me, ‘You’re a good editor. … I can tell that because [an editor of a small publication like Persuasion] might have just one or maybe two good writers, but all of your writers are good and that means the editor’s good.'”
But Rand had more than just praise for Joan. She also had a suggestion. If Joan wanted to keepPersuasion going, Rand told her, “Take it out of the Young Republican Club — buy it from them or something like that. Set up a corporation, so that I can endorse you in The Objectivist. Because I wouldn’t want to endorse anything that was specifically of a political party.”
This was an opportunity. Joan saw it and took it. She established an independent corporation, Persuasion, Inc., and took over the magazine from the Metropolitan Young Republican Club.
Rand’s endorsement, the only one she ever extended to any political magazine, appeared in the December 1965 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter under the headline “A Recommendation.” It began with a caveat. “One cannot recommend a magazine or a periodical over whose future content one has no control, except conditionally or provisionally.”
She described Persuasion as “a modest little periodical which I have watched for almost a year and found to be excellent in its particular field.” Persuasion, she wrote, was “not a philosophical or theoretical, but specifically a political publication,” one that did “a remarkable educational job in tying current political events to wider principles, evaluating specific events in a rational frame-of-reference, and maintaining a high degree of consistency.” The magazine would be “of particular interest and value,” Rand thought, “to all those who are eager to fight on the level of practical politics, but flounder hopelessly for lack of proper material.”
The endorsement launched the new, independent Persuasion in style. As Joan told Duncan Scott 40 years later, “we got like a thousand subscriptions or something from Ayn’s endorsement.”
In that same series of conversations in which Rand advised Joan to take her magazine out of the Metropolitan Young Republican Club and make it an independent publication, Joan asked her mentor’s advice on how she should portray Persuasion publicly. As she told a couple of interviewers in later years, the members of the editorial staff of Persuasion “were all students of her philosophy … but [Persuasion] was to deal entirely with politics.” So she put the question directly to Ayn Rand: “What do I call the view that we hold?” she asked. “It certainly isn’t Republican. On the other hand I can’t say it’s Objectivist; we have no position on art, epistemology, metaphysics, whatever, only on politics.”
Rand’s answer was straightforward, and so was her advice. “That was when she explained to me,” Joan wrote decades later, “that the name for her political philosophy, considered by itself, was libertarianism, and [she] suggested thatPersuasion should call itself a libertarian publication. And so we did.”
When the Objectivist movement collapsed in the wake of the Rand-Branden split four years later, Joan closed Persuasion. She felt she had no choice. If she failed to cave in to Rand’s demands that she denounce Nathaniel and Barbara Branden, she herself would be denounced, along with Persuasion, in the pages of Rand’s magazine, The Objectivist. So she closed Persuasion, not without regrets, and walked away.
She moved up to her summer home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and pursued other interests. Joan had many other interests. And she pursued them for most of the next ten years, until one day in early 1977, she received an extremely interesting telephone call from an extremely interesting young man, one Roy A. Childs Jr., 28 years old, who was taking over the editorship of a small publication called Libertarian Review, with the assignment of turning it into a monthly magazine of issues, events, and ideas — a sort of National Review or The Nation or The New Republic, only monthly (rather than weekly or fortnightly), and from a libertarian perspective.
Childs had seen Rand’s endorsement of Persuasion when he was still in high school, had sent off for a sample copy and had then subscribed. For the new magazine he was launching, he hoped to attract an editorial staff and a group of associate editors who would represent both the Rothbardian and the Randian elements within the libertarian movement. Would Joan like to write for the magazine? Would she be interested in becoming an associate editor?
At this time, Libertarian Review was published out of offices in New York City, but it moved to San Francisco at the beginning of 1978, and by then, Childs was aggressively working to persuade his bosses, Charles Koch and Ed Crane, to make Joan a full-time member of the magazine’s staff. As she herself put it 15 years later,
I was a person who had worked in the anti-draft movement and who had done some political writing, but I had published nothing in this area for nine years. I was living in western Massachusetts in a rural setting, living a very domestic life. Roy didn’t care for that. Roy decided that I should be a political person. … And he assigned me articles to write. … He made me an associate editor of the Libertarian Review. We visited each other in New York, and he came to Massachusetts to visit me and my husband. And we were together a great deal. He educated me. He made me read books. He lobbied to get me on the staff of the Libertarian Review, and got me a staff job [there] which I took.
And so it was that Joan Kennedy Taylor completed the transition from individualism to libertarianism that she had begun in the 1960s under the tutelage of Ayn Rand. Now in her early 50s, she was at last ready to embark on the most important and productive period in her career — the period that would establish her as an important intellectual figure in the libertarian movement.
When Roy Childs phoned Joan Kennedy Taylor to let her know that he had finally won approval for his plan to add her to the full-time staff of theLibertarian Review, she was delighted. She had already discussed the idea with David Dawson, the man she had been married to for the past two decades, and they had decided to move to San Francisco if Roy’s plan did come to fruition and he actually made her an offer. They had spent much of the previous summer in the City by the Bay to make sure they’d be comfortable living so far from New York, and the experiment had been a success. They began making arrangements to leave their home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and motor West.
At last, in mid-April of 1979, all was in readiness. Their car was fully checked out for the trip. They were scheduled to leave in three days. They were expected in San Francisco by the end of the month. Joan was to start work on May 1. And then, on April 15, income-tax day, David suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack at the age of 52.
After recovering from the shock, Joan considered what to do. She could stay in Stockbridge and live off the meager fees she could collect for freelance writing, copyediting, and proofreading jobs, while dealing as best she could with the difficulty of getting around, especially in winter — for Joan had never learned to drive a car. She could go back to New York and earn her keep as a paralegal. She could even take attorney Paul Morofsky’s advice and go back to school; she could earn a law degree of her own. She had been working for Morofsky as a paralegal for a year and a half now, commuting back and forth from Stockbridge on the bus and staying a few nights every week in Manhattan. He thought she could have a brilliant future in the legal profession. Already, she had developed a strong interest in constitutional law.
On the other hand, she could pursue that emerging interest in constitutional law outside the legal profession, as a journalist, writing about Supreme Court cases and related matters in the pages of the Libertarian Review. She could go to San Francisco after all, find a place to live, and try to build a new life from scratch in a new place. And, after a bit of soul-searching, it was this last option that she decided to take.
She arrived in San Francisco one day in May of 1979, with little more than the clothes on her back and the contents of a couple of suitcases. As she herself told the tale nearly 15 years later,
When I arrived [in San Francisco, Roy] decided that I should room with him, and he introduced me to a whole new group of people. He made the difference between my being a disconsolate widow trying to pick up the pieces of her life, and being a writer that Roy projected he was very fortunate to have gotten onto the magazine. He gave me a new circle of friends, a new life, and created really a new family for me in the staff of theLibertarian Review.
Over the next year and a half, Joan also established ties with the Cato Institute, then in its second year of operation out of a suite of offices in San Francisco about half a block down the street from the ones that housed the Libertarian Review. These ties with Cato would last for the rest of her professional life. She began by accepting a position as a biweekly commentator on Byline, Cato’s daily radio program, which ran Monday through Friday on more than 150 radio stations coast to coast throughout the 1980s. Meanwhile, she was becoming more involved with the Libertarian Party.
She had first joined the party in 1976 in Massachusetts, and within the first year of her membership she had impressed her fellow party members with the depth of her knowledge, with her verbal facility, and with her gift for diplomacy — her ability to moderate differences, find common ground, and work with people toward mutual goals despite serious disagreements.
“It seemed to Joan that any individualist was by definition also a feminist. Were not women individuals, just as men were?”
To no one’s surprise, she was elected by her fellow Massachusetts party members to become the only woman on the 20-member Platform Committee at the 1977 national Libertarian Party convention in San Francisco. Two years later, in 1979, a few months after she arrived in San Francisco to work on the Libertarian Review, she served as chair of the Platform Committee at the National Libertarian Party Presidential Nominating Convention in Los Angeles, the convention that nominated the ticket of Ed Clark and David Koch to represent the party in the 1980 presidential election against John Anderson, Jimmy Carter, and, of course, the winner, Ronald Reagan.
Joan’s purpose in becoming involved in the Libertarian Party in the first place was to persuade the Massachusetts branch of the party to endorse the Massachusetts Equal Rights Amendment, which declared that
all people are born free and equal and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
It further stipulated that “equality under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of sex, race, color, creed or national origin.” Joan’s purpose in becoming involved in the national party was to persuade its members to support the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution.
Such a position was not easily marketed to libertarians in the 1970s — though this fact never ceased to mystify Joan. It seemed to her that any individualist was by definition also a feminist. Were not women individuals, just as men were? It seemed to Joan that any libertarian was by definition also a feminist. Did not women own their own bodies, just as men did? Were they not entitled to the same rights that men enjoyed?
What sort of “libertarian” would balk at amending the US Constitution to recognize the equal rights of women, when these rights had been systematically abrogated and denied in large and small ways, both by the federal government and by state and local governments, ever since the founding of the United States?
Libertarians in the 1970s did not tend to view feminism in this way. They tended to view feminism with suspicion. Weren’t feminists those angry, whiny, bra-burning women who wanted the taxpayers to be forced to pay for their daycare? Weren’t feminists those women who hated men and blamed them for everything that was wrong in women’s lives? Well, yes, of course, there were feminists back then who corresponded rather well to that description. But was that the entire story about feminism?
Joan thought not. She had thought not ever since the early 1960s, when she had read Betty Friedan’s then-new book The Feminine Mystique. She had agreed with Edith Efron, who reviewed Friedan’s book for Ayn Rand’s Objectivist Newsletter (the July 1963 issue) and called it “a brilliant, informative and culturally explosive book” which “should be read by every woman — and by every man — in America.”
If most libertarians (and certainly most libertarian women) in the 1970s thought of feminism as a movement that sought special handouts and other privileges to be bestowed upon women by the federal government, Joan believed this situation was caused, fundamentally, by historical ignorance. Perhaps it was from Murray Rothbard, whom she knew and worked with during her period in San Francisco, that she learned the importance of revising the official historical record from time to time, so that the truth about what actually happened in the past is not forgotten.
In any case, the fact is that her next major libertarian project after her work at the Libertarian Review was done — and the principal reason libertarians of today should find Joan Kennedy Taylor a figure of enduring interest — was her revisionist history of the feminist movement, published in 1992 under the title Reclaiming the Mainstream: Individualist Feminism Rediscovered.
Joan’s work at the Libertarian Review was done soon enough, as things turned out. After three years in San Francisco, the magazine moved one final time, to Washington, DC. A year later, it ceased publication. Joan moved on to the Manhattan Institute — yes, that Manhattan Institute, theManhattan Institute, the standard-issue bloodthirsty neocon think tank in New York City, the last place any libertarian under 40 would expect to find anything or anyone libertarian. But the fact is that 30 years ago, under the presidency of Bill Hammett, a former student of Objectivism who had fallen under the sway of Friedrich Hayek while doing his undergraduate work at the University of Chicago in the early 1960s, the Manhattan Institute was essentially libertarian in its ideological orientation.
When Joan left the Manhattan Institute, she moved on to the Foundation for Economic Education, where she served as an editor of The Freeman, the original magazine of the modern American libertarian movement, a magazine that was around 35 years old when Joan was working on it in the 1980s and is now rapidly approaching its 60th anniversary. And, in her spare time, she worked out her revisionist history of feminism.
Joan placed the origins of the American feminist movement in the abolitionist movement of the 19th century. In the 1830s, as that movement began gathering steam and attracting more and more nationwide attention, it also began attracting more and more supporters — most of them men, but many of them women.
“It was in this cause,” Joan wrote, “that women became politically active in the United States.” There was a problem, however. Women in the America of the 1830s “had some legal rights, but they … did not have the political rights that men did. They could not vote, hold public office, or serve on juries.” In fact, “there was only one political avenue open to them, and they discovered it — the First Amendment right to petition.”
The petition process was an important tool of the abolitionists from early on. Joan noted that
when ex-president John Quincy Adams was elected to the House of Representatives from Massachusetts and gave his first speech to the House in December of 1831, he presented petitions from a group of Quakers, asking for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade in the District of Columbia. This was to become a major issue for him as a congressman.
The Quakers didn’t see their request granted, needless to say. “This first petition,” Joan wrote, “was routinely sent to Congress’s standing Committee on the District of Columbia, which didn’t act on it. But more and more petitions against slavery began arriving in Congress.” Within a couple of years, “in December 1833, a national American Antislavery Society was formed. … It promoted the sending of petitions to Congress.”
As a result, Joan wrote,
by the end of 1835, petitions were coming in, not just from Quakers and other abolitionists, but from ordinary citizens in almost every northern and western congressional district. In May 1836, the House of Representatives passed a gag resolution to dispose of the petitions by resolving that petitions relating to the subject of slavery should be ignored and that no action was to be taken on them — they would neither be printed nor referred to committee.
Adams fought against this, but the gag rule remained in effect for more than six years, “until December 3, 1842.” Over that six-year period, however, the petitioners did not give up hope. Nor did they stop working. Thanks to their tireless efforts, Joan wrote,
more and more petitions were collected and signed, even though they would be refused and unread. In the session of Congress that began in December 1837, more than 200,000 petitions were sent to Congress, signed by millions of citizens, at a time when the entire population of the North was only about 10 million. The petitioning continued, and most of the volunteers collecting and signing these petitions were women.
And those women could hardly fail to notice the treatment they too often received from their seemingly rather ungrateful male colleagues in the abolitionist movement. “In 1840,” Joan reported,
two antislavery workers, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, went to London as delegates to a World Anti-Slavery Convention. They were horrified to find that they and the other female delegates were not allowed to sit in the meeting with the male delegates, but were required to listen to the proceedings from seats in the gallery. The American abolitionist leader, William Lloyd Garrison, was so incensed by their treatment that he refused to take his seat as a delegate and sat with the women.
And it wasn’t just the men in the abolitionist movement whose behavior had begun to disturb these politically involved women. The laws that men had made — even here in the United States, the nation founded on the proposition that “all men are created equal” — treated women very badly indeed. It was no accident, Joan believed, that it was not until “women first banded together to agitate to end slavery” that they first “became aware of how many laws enslaved them.” The longer they thought about it, after that, the more preposterous it began to seem. “How could one believe that slaves should have civil rights and still believe in denying those rights to the women who were championing their cause?” Joan asked rhetorically.
Surely these supposedly free women were no less intelligent, no less worthy, no less human than these unfortunate members of another race enslaved on our shores. Yet, like the slaves, American married women in 1848 could not own property, could not sign contracts, could not vote, could not control their own earnings, could be physically beaten, and could be returned to their homes by force if they ran away.
So the abolitionist women turned their attention to what would later be called “feminist” concerns. Two of them, Stanton and Mott, organized what Joan called the “first Woman’s Rights Convention” in 1848. Stanton and Mott called it “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” It was a resounding success, attracting some three hundred attendees, and became the first of a series of such conferences held over the next dozen years in other parts of the country.
Joan focused her attention most sharply, not on the conferences and alliances and election campaigns that these early feminists involved themselves in, but rather on the ideas that motivated them. “The thesis of this book,” she wrote, near the beginning of Reclaiming the Mainstream,
is that what we now call “feminism” began early in the nineteenth century as an individualist movement, and, further, that it is this individualism that has been the defining characteristic of the mainstream of that movement ever since. This does not mean that individualism has always predominated. Since the early days of the movement, there have been two philosophical strands of thought within it: individualism and collectivism, and from time to time one or the other strand has become dominant. When the collectivists predominate, the individualists become less active and return to cultivating their gardens.
In Joan’s view, if the contemporary feminist movement was earning itself a black eye among libertarians by extolling the supposed benefits of federal programs that would privilege certain women at the expense of everyone else, this merely showed that the collectivists in the feminist movement were temporarily in the ascendant.
Instead of cultivating their gardens, individualist feminists — libertarian feminists — should take the movement back from these collectivists. They should reclaim the mainstream.
Joan Kennedy Taylor was diagnosed with bladder cancer early in 2002 and was given less than a year to live. Nearly four years later, late in 2005, she died from the effects of the cancer and related kidney failure, just short of her 79th birthday. Not long before the cancer robbed her of the strength to write, so that she had at last to curtail her many years of service as an officer of the Association of Libertarian Feminists, she managed to complete one more book, outlining a libertarian solution to the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace. At the time of her death, as a pioneer in the definition and promotion of individualist or libertarian feminism, Joan had earned an honored place in the libertarian tradition.